Earlier this week 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based personal genomics company, was awarded its first patent: US Patent Number 8,187,811, entitled “Polymorphisms associated with Parkinson’s disease”.
23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki announced the issuance of the patent via a post on the company’s blog late Monday evening, attempting to strike a tenuous balance between her company’s oft-championed philosophical devotion to providing individuals with “unfettered access to their genomes” and its desire to commercialize the genomic information so many of those very same individuals have shared, free of charge, with 23andMe. With its new patent, 23andMe also injected itself into the middle of what Wojcicki herself described as the “hot debate” surrounding the patentability of “inventions related to genetics.” Wojcicki’s announcement appeared to catch more than a few of the company’s customers by surprise, sparking concern about the company’s intentions on 23andMe’s blog, Twitter and elsewhere, along with rapid and pointed commentaries from Stuart Hogarth and Madeleine Ball, among others.
Of the various questions asked of and about 23andMe and its new patent, these may be the three most common: Where did this patent come from, and why didn’t I hear about it before? What does 23andMe’s patent cover? How is 23andMe going to use its patent? Let’s take each question in turn.
As first reported by GenomeWeb, last week the NIH issued a “Notice on Development of Data Sharing Policy for Sequence and Related Genomic Data.” Although the title doesn’t exactly trip off of the tongue, the NIH’s announcement provides an opportunity to review where we are and where we have already been when it comes to genomic data-sharing.
At the heart of the NIH’s announcement is a desire to increase the availability of genomic datasets. From last week’s notice:
Consistent with the NIH mission to improve public health through research and the longstanding NIH policy to make data publicly available from the research activities that it funds, the NIH has concluded that the full value of sequence-based genomic data can best be realized by making the sequence, as well as other genomic and phenotype datasets derived from large-scale studies, available as broadly as possible to a wide range of scientific investigators.
For NIH-funded genomic researchers, this language should have a familiar ring. In 2007, the NIH published a policy covering data-sharing for genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that required all NIH-funded GWAS research be deposited in a central data repository. Here’s the mission statement from the 2007 policy:
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